While the #MeToo movement that swept through the film industry two years ago dismantled a system that long engendered and protected abuses of power and privilege, it also led to conversations around what kinds of stories get to be told and who gets to tell them. The result is a much-needed uptick of female, queer and minority film-makers. While the door has not been entirely kicked down—see the all male line-up of this year’s Oscar‑nominated directors, despite a banner year for astounding movies by female directors—it has been wedged open wide enough for new visions and voices to break through. And as more women get a seat at the table, we are seeing a distinct approach to film-making—one that proudly places style front and centre in their movies, to wondrous effect.
In the not-so-distant past, female film-makers who emphasised a distinctly feminine aesthetic were often relegated to the side, their movies deemed not serious enough. Sofia Coppola serves as the most glaring example; a common criticism lobbed from certain circles is that the dreamy, hazy worlds she constructs often revolve around their supposed triviality. Consider that Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman to have won the Oscar for Best Director, was awarded that honour for her work on a conventionally masculine movie set against the backdrop of the Iraq War (The Hurt Locker).
But in a sign that the tides are changing, a recent spate of female-directed and female-driven films were celebrated as much for their style and visual flair as they were for their powerful narratives, deft direction and nuanced characterisations. In these films, the costumes were as much a character as the living, breathing actors, with some conveying the inner lives and identities of the personas as effectively as dialogue.
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Of the six nominations it garnered at this year’s Oscars, Little Women only took home the prize in the costume design category. For her adaption of the evergreen 1868 novel, Greta Gerwig worked with costume designer Jacqueline Durran. They decided that each of the four March sisters at the centre of the story—all with vastly different temperaments—would have an individual colour scheme as their base palette, creating distinct looks that came together in harmony when all four were framed together in a scene. Because the March family was radical for their time and did not fit into the norms of the era, the wardrobe similarly reflected that spirit—faithful to 19th-century Victoriana, but not exactly, stiflingly accurate.
Gerwig and Durran liberated Jo March, the strong-headed, tomboyish protagonist, from corsets and hoop skirts, and put her in menswear-leaning pieces such as tailored jackets and waistcoats— the latter of which she occasionally swapped with her male best friend, Laurie. Amy March, often characterised as the vain one, got the most decorative dresses, especially after she landed in Paris to live with wealthy Aunt March, who is herself contrasted with the rest of the family through her old-fashioned but opulent attire.
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Another sumptuously costumed adaptation of a popular classic is Emma, Autumn de Wilde’s take on the Jane Austen novel that marks her feature film directorial debut. She has previously created work for fashion brands the likes of Prada and Rodarte, and it shows in her meticulous attention to the characters’ wardrobes, designed here by Alexandra Byrne. The colours truly pop, from Emma’s Laduree-coloured house to her endless parade of bonnets and bags, frocks and coats, and jewels and gloves. Like Little Women, it is true to its period—in this case, the Regency era with its Empire silhouettes of fitted bodices and high waists, low square necklines and little puffed shoulders. But there is also a contemporary edge in the outré accessories, from the micro purses to the supersized headgear, all of which were historically faithful but also wouldn’t look out of place in a street-style photo today.
The costumes in Emma also serve to delineate the class distinction between well-to-do Emma and her less-fortunate friends like Harriet and Miss Bates. The outfits of the former are intricate, elaborate affairs bedecked with ribbons, bows, feathers and embroideries, whilst the latter two look comparatively drabber and with more repetitive outfits. It is also something of a visual gag to see the collars of Mr Elton, the foolish vicar, become increasingly stiffer and more fanciful as his ridiculousness and sense of self-importance progressively grew.
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While the previous two films are new retellings of old tales, Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a powerfully original story. Set on a remote island in 18th-century France, it is a tender look at queer love between a painter and the woman she was hired to paint in secret. Sciamma employs remarkable restrain, using dialogue and music sparingly to convey unspoken desires, inner tumult, and feelings of longing and loss.
The costumes designed by Dorothée Guiraud reflect that same sense of austerity, heightened by the fact that both women mostly wear the same looks throughout the entire film. They were faithful to the silhouettes, weightage and fabrics of the 1700s, but Sciamma and Guiraud made the decision to strip away the decorative adornments and flourishes that would have been common to the period. The result is a visual serenity that jives with the contemplative mood of the movie. The rich emerald and brick-red hues of the two central dresses further add to the painterly aesthetic of the film—a breathtaking piece of cinematography that befits its subject matter.
Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers may not be set in the 18th or 19th century, but it is a period piece nonetheless, with an aesthetic so intensely indicative of its era despite only dating back a little more than a decade ago. Set in the years immediately before and after the great financial crash of 2008, the tale of strippers-turned-grifters checked all the boxes of late noughties style. For inspiration, costume designer Mitchell Travers looked to the decade’s bad girls: Paris, Britney and Lindsay. Off duty, the characters wear velour tracksuits, UGG boots, Apple Bottoms jeans, Von Dutch hats and cargo pants with chain belts. When out to seduce and scam, they switch to bandage dresses and platform heels with red soles.
As was the rage then, monogram logos abound; Coach and Guess when times are leaner, then a whole lot of Gucci and Takashi Murakami’s Louis Vuitton (and an increasing amount of fur coats), signalling their style evolution as they start to make a killing. One of the most indelible images from cinema last year had to be an early scene of Jennifer Lopez’s character enveloping Constance Wu’s in her gigantic fur coat on a freezing rooftop. A single item of clothing that speaks volumes of sisterhood and sorority, as well as sets the tone for the dynamics of the entire movie—that is the power of fashion, harnessed to its full potential by the brilliant new visions in film.